Modest In Terrain, Kobani Still A Win For ISIS

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Jun 25, 2015 at 5:20 PM ET

Like the pair of execution videos it released this week, the Islamic State’s surprise attack against the Syrian city of Kobani on Thursday was a violent spectacle that appeared to be as much about re-energizing its followers after a series of setbacks as it was about gaining strategic ground.

ISIS fighters reportedly disguised themselves as Free Syrian Army soldiers, detonated several car bombs and killed at least 35 people, including women and children. But compared to the group’s simultaneous assault on Hasaka—where the group claims to have killed at least 70 of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and seized sections of the city—it was relatively modest.

“Kobani was not a major offensive,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies, who estimates the number of ISIS forces in the city to have only been between 30 and 40. Hundreds, meanwhile, had stormed Hasaka in Syria’s northeast, he said.

Still, the attack on Kobani was a PR victory for ISIS, triggering headlines around the globe. It’s the first time ISIS attacked the frontier town, which shares a border with Turkey, since Kurdish fighters backed by a U.S. coalition drove the group out in January. That battle became a litmus test for whether air strikes could slow ISIS’ advance across Syria and neighboring Iraq. U.S. officials also believe the campaign dealt a symbolic blow to the terrorist group. 

“ISIL’s defeat in Kobani has clearly exploded their myth of invincibility and damaged morale,” Gen. John Allen, a U.S. coalition commander, told the Atlantic Council in March, using a different abbreviation for the Islamic State.

ISIS’ return to the city could, in part, be an attempt at further damage control. In recent weeks, it has suffered a series of strategic losses near its Syrian headquarters in Raqqa. Tal Abayad, a crucial supply hub for ISIS, fell to Kurdish fighters on June 15. This week, Kurdish-led forces captured an ISIS military base as well in the nearby town of Ayn Issa. Such an idea was not lost on Charlie Winter, a Middle East researcher with the Quillium Foundation, who called ISIS’ advances on Kobani and Hasaka “diversionary.”

A similar tactic was at hand in the two execution videos released by ISIS this week. The New York Times reported that the footage of prisoners being incinerated, drowned and blown up seemed to be squarely aimed at quashing a growing resistance among civilians in Iraq. Another video, released Thursday, shows ISIS fighters executing a member of al-Qaeda, the group’s main rival for territory in Syria.

If part of Kobani’s offensive was to re-energize beleaguered jihadists, it was successful. ISIS forums lit up on Thursday, a social media analysis by Vocativ showed. Supporters also took to Twitter to taunt their enemies.

“Your destiny is to be slaughtered,” posted one supporter, who took aim at the Free Syrian Army.

“The victory from Allah is close,” said another.

However, Gartenstein-Ross believes the celebrations among ISIS supporters may be short-lived. “They are slowly getting ground down, he says. “It’s not dramatic, but that’s the overall trajectory.”